Posted: September 19th, 2022

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Breastfeeding Duration Predicts Greater Maternal Sensitivity Over the
Next Decade

Jennifer M. Weaver
Boise State University

Thomas J. Schofield
Iowa State University

Lauren M. Papp
University of Wisconsin—Madison

The current study represents the first longitudinal investigation of the potential effects of breastfeeding
duration on maternal sensitivity over the following decade. This study also examined whether infant
attachment security at 24 months would mediate longitudinal relations between breastfeeding duration
and changes in maternal sensitivity over time. Using data from 1,272 families from the National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, we
found that longer breastfeeding duration (assessed up to age 3) predicted increases in observed maternal
sensitivity up to child age 11, after accounting for maternal neuroticism, parenting attitudes, ethnicity,
maternal years of education, and presence of a romantic partner. Additionally, secure attachment at 24
months was predicted by breastfeeding duration, but it did not act as a mediator of the link from
breastfeeding duration to maternal sensitivity in this study. Generating a more specific understanding of
how breastfeeding impacts the mother–child dyad beyond infancy will inform recommendations for best
practices regarding breastfeeding.

Keywords: breastfeeding, maternal sensitivity, attachment

Children who were breastfed as infants show multiple positive
outcomes, including higher cognitive competence, fewer health
problems, and higher communication scores than do children who
were not breastfed (Oddy et al., 2011). Benefits for the infant
immune system from breastfeeding have also been well estab-
lished (Xanthou, 1998), and research has further indicated long-
term protection against disease and obesity for children (Hoddi-
nott, Tappin, & Wright, 2008). Quinn and colleagues (2001) also
found a significant effect of breastfeeding duration on child cog-
nitive development, after accounting for a range of biological and
psychosocial factors. Breastfeeding also offers positive health ben-
efits for mothers, such as lowering risks for ovarian and breast
cancer rates (Godfrey & Lawrence, 2010; Mezzacappa & Katkin,
2002; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).
Studies have also established a link between longer duration of
breastfeeding and mothers’ lower postpartum depressive symp-

toms, suggesting that the practice of breastfeeding may be protec-
tive for new mothers (Akman et al., 2008; Hahn-Holbrook, Hasel-
ton, Dunkel Schetter, & Glynn, 2013). Maternal caregiving also
appears to be related to breastfeeding, because several studies have
demonstrated a relationship between breastfeeding and mothers’
displays of sensitive caregiving with their infants (Bigelow et al.,
2014; Edwards, Thullen, Henson, Lee, & Hans, 2015; Kim et al.,
2011; Kuzela, Stifter, & Worobey, 1990; Papp, 2014; Tharner et
al., 2012). However, research establishing the extent to which
breastfeeding may influence parenting behaviors longitudinally,
and the stability of this relationship beyond infancy, has been
lacking. This gap in the literature is important given that breast-
feeding is highly recommended for families with young children
(Eidelman et al., 2012). The current study addresses the link
between the number of weeks mothers breastfeed their infant
(breastfeeding duration) and changes in their sensitivity toward
their child over the following decade. We further examine whether
child attachment may mediate the relationship between breastfeed-
ing duration and maternal sensitivity.

During the child’s infancy, maternal sensitivity refers to the
synchronous timing of a mother’s responsiveness to her baby and
her affect, flexibility, and ability to read her infants’ cues (Johnson,
2013; Leerkes, Weaver, & O’Brien, 2012). As the child grows,
sensitivity continues to reflect an ability to participate in a syn-
chronous relationship and incorporates age-appropriate behaviors
such as respect for autonomy, supportive presence, and withhold-
ing hostility (Owen, Klausli, & Murrey, 2000). In the postpartum

This article was published Online First October 30, 2017.
Jennifer M. Weaver, Department of Psychological Science, Boise State

University; Thomas J. Schofield, Department of Human Development and
Family Studies, Iowa State University; Lauren M. Papp, Department of Hu-
man Development and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer
M. Weaver, Department of Psychological Science, Boise State University,
1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725. E-mail: jenniferweaver@

Developmental Psychology © 2017 American Psychological Association
2018, Vol. 54, No. 2,


–227 0012-1649/18/$12.00


period, breastfeeding is frequently encouraged as a way to increase
maternal sensitivity, although multiple authors have noted that the
positive emotional bonding between mother and infant often pro-
moted as a breastfeeding benefit has not been tested empirically
(Golding, Rogers, & Emmett, 1997; Jansen, de Weerth, & Riksen-
Walraven, 2008; Schulze & Carlisle, 2010; Tharner et al., 2012).
There is, however, theoretical support for the expectation that
breastfeeding might be related to the mother–infant relationship.
Breastfeeding has been linked to both activation of brain regions
associated with caregiving (Kim et al., 2011) and the release of
oxytocin, a critical hormone linked to social competence and adequate
caregiving behaviors (Moberg & Prime, 2013). Observations of
breastfeeding versus nonbreastfeeding mothers has also suggested
behavioral differences between the two. For example, breastfeeding
mothers scored higher on positive maternal interactions when feeding
their infants and in free play situations, and currently breastfeeding
mothers displayed more maternal touch (Bigelow et al., 2014; Kuzela
et al., 1990). Additionally, breastfeeding mothers spent more time in
close interactive behaviors with their infants, which may promote
maternal sensitivity (Smith & Ellwood, 2011; Smith & Forrester,
2017). In sum, the longer a mother breastfeeds, the longer she is
exposed to both biological and situational factors that promote parent–
offspring bonding and parental investment. What is unknown is the
degree to which these biological and situational factors scaffold sen-
sitive parenting beyond the immediate interaction. For example, if the
release of hormones like oxytocin or vasopressin during breastfeeding
increases emotional bonding between mother and child and subse-
quent caregiving behavior, it would be most evolutionarily adaptive
for that promotive influence to extend past infancy. Were breastfeed-
ing duration to facilitate maternal sensitivity beyond the infant period,
it would potentially explain the various reported long-term benefits of
being breastfed, including increased cognitive ability (Golding et al.,
1997; Kramer et al., 2008), lower incidence of psychopathology
(Hughes & Bushnell, 1977; Schwarze, Hellhammer, Stroehle, Lieb, &
Mobascher, 2015), and lower incidence of substance use (Alati, Van
Dooren, Najman, Williams, & Clavarino, 2009). It is currently un-
known whether breastfeeding behavior predicts changes in caregiving
behavior or the degree to which those changes are seen beyond

Consistent with the expectation that breastfeeding will have
positive consequences for mother–child interactions, breastfeed-
ing is correlated with measures related to maternal sensitivity. For
example, a sample of 17 mothers who exclusively breastfed during
the first month postpartum showed increased activation in brain
regions associated with caregiving behaviors, which in turn was
correlated with more sensitivity with their infants at 3–4 months
postpartum (Kim et al., 2011). During trials in which distressed
and nondistressed infant faces were shown to mothers, breastfeed-
ing mothers were significantly more likely than bottle-feeding
mothers to attend to infant distress. This difference was not evident
during late pregnancy but emerged following the experience of
breastfeeding (Pearson, Lightman, & Evans, 2011).

Breastfeeding duration has also been correlated with observa-
tional measures of sensitivity. Among a matched sample of young,
low-income African American mothers, breastfeeding initiation
was positively correlated with maternal sensitivity at 4 months
postpartum (Edwards et al., 2015). In a larger, Dutch birth-cohort
sample, longer breastfeeding duration in infancy was associated
with more maternal sensitive responsiveness at 14 months (Thar-

ner et al., 2012). Papp (2014) used the same data set employed in
the present study to examine breastfeeding’s correlation with ob-
served maternal sensitivity and found that, controlling for demo-
graphic and early relational characteristics, dichotomous breast-
feeding status (currently breastfeeding or not) correlated with
observed maternal sensitivity over the first 3 years of parenting.

The literature to date on breastfeeding and parenting behaviors
has been limited by not predicting change in maternal sensitivity
over time. The reported correlations between breastfeeding dura-
tion and maternal sensitivity could be driven by a common cause
or by selection effects. According to the selection perspective,
dispositionally invested mothers are likely to both breastfeed and
express sensitivity. In the present study, we sought to account for
this selection perspective by including a range of important cova-
riates, such as maternal education, presence of a partner in the
home, maternal ethnicity, and child attachment to mother. We
further added to these factors maternal neuroticism and parenting
beliefs. Studies that account for such a range of selection factors
and examine longitudinal change, in which mothers’ own sensi-
tivity is used as a control to predict increases over time, have
offered a stringent test of the commonly held belief that breast-
feeding promotes mother–child bonding (Johnson, 2013).

Attachment as a Possible Mediator

In a further extension of our model linking breastfeeding and
changes in maternal sensitivity over time, we also examined the
role of attachment as a potential mediator between breastfeeding
duration and maternal sensitivity. There has been a great deal of
theoretical and empirical work linking maternal sensitivity with
attachment outcomes (for a review see de Wolff & van Ijzendoorn,
1997), but in this study we were particularly interested in how
mothers’ behaviors might change over time. Therefore, we exam-
ined whether the link between breastfeeding duration and sensi-
tivity could be mediated by the strength of the infant attachment to
the mother. According to attachment theory and research, being in
close physical proximity promotes a secure infant attachment (Ain-
sworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1974; Anisfeld, Casper, Nozyce, & Cun-
ningham, 1990; Bowlby, 1969). In line with this, the close physical
contact afforded by breastfeeding, in addition to the positive interac-
tional qualities observed in breastfeeding mothers, might also promote
a secure infant attachment (Bigelow et al., 2014; Kuzela et al., 1990).
In turn, having a securely attached infant may lead to a stronger
mother–infant relationship, which may be evidenced by the mother’s
increasing sensitivity to the child’s behavior (Belsky & Pasco Fearon,
2002). In this model, breastfeeding, attachment, and sensitivity were
all measured at different timepoints, allowing for a true mediational

Specific research on the links between breastfeeding and attach-
ment have been limited, and the results have presented a compli-
cated and mixed pattern of findings (Tharner et al., 2012; also see
Britton, Britton, & Gronwaldt, 2006; Johnson, 2013; Kim et al.,
2011). Jansen and colleagues (2008), in a review of the literature
(k � 6) on breastfeeding and the mother–infant relationship,
concluded there was no empirical evidence to support a claim that
breastfeeding promotes either maternal bonding or infant attach-
ment. More recently, a study of 152 mothers recruited during
pregnancy and followed until their infants were 1 year of age
showed no link between attachment classification at 12 months


and breastfeeding initiation or duration (Britton et al., 2006).
However, another study showed that mother–child pairs with 6
months of breastfeeding had higher levels of secure and lower
levels of disorganized attachment scores than did their counter-
parts who breastfed for a shorter duration, as well as the highest
level of maternal sensitivity at 14 months (Tharner et al., 2012).
However, both attachment and sensitivity were measured at 14
months, preventing attempts to disentangle the two. Furthermore,
although the authors were interested in testing for a mediational
role for maternal sensitivity, they found sensitivity to be unrelated
to attachment in their sample. We extend the literature on this topic
by testing for attachment security as a mediator, using a measure
of attachment temporally separate from the period of breastfeeding
and subsequent maternal sensitivity.

The Current Study

Consistent with dose–response evidence (e.g., linking early
feeding practices and cognitive development; Quinn et al., 2001;
Sloan, Stewart, & Dunne, 2010), the predictor was operationalized
as breastfeeding duration. We extend prior work on parenting
behaviors and breastfeeding by testing for a dose–response relation
between breastfeeding duration and relative change in maternal
sensitivity over the first decade of the child’s life. Recent research
and theory has emphasized the importance of understanding de-
terminants of dynamic processes in parenting (Belsky & Jaffee,
2006), suggesting, for example, that maternal sensitivity may de-
crease over time with children exhibiting developmental risk (Cici-
olla, Crnic, & West, 2013). We extended this work that has examined
determinants of trajectories of maternal sensitivity, expecting that a
longer breastfeeding duration would predict relative increases in ma-
ternal sensitivity. We expected that mothers who breastfed longer
would also enjoy the positive biological, physical, and interactional
benefits associated with breastfeeding for a longer period of time. We
further expected the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal
sensitivity to extend beyond the infant–toddler period, although no
studies have specifically examined the period of time that the current
study does. In sum, breastfeeding was expected to set in motion a
cascade of positive mother–child interactional qualities that would
continue beyond the period when breastfeeding was occurring.

We included covariates linked to breastfeeding behavior. Breast-
feeding mothers have frequently been observed to be partnered and
more educated than are their nonbreastfeeding counterparts (Gibson-
Davis & Brooks-Gunn, 2007; Papp, 2014; Ryan, Wenjun, & Acosta,
2002; Thulier & Mercer, 2009). Also, some work has shown African
American mothers to be less likely to start breastfeeding than either
European American or Latina mothers (Thulier & Mercer, 2009).
Additionally, dispositional qualities of mothers may differentiate
breastfeeding from nonbreastfeeding mothers, so we also included the
mothers level of neuroticism and her parenting attitudes as covariates.
Specifically, research has suggested that mothers who reported high
levels of extroversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness were
significantly more likely to initiate and continue breastfeeding for a
longer duration (Brown, 2014). Similarly, mothers who adopted an
infant-led approach to feeding were more likely to breastfeed for a
longer duration than were those who adopted parent-led attitudes
(Brown & Arnott, 2014).

Child gender was also included as a potential moderator, be-
cause research with mother–infant breastfeeding dyads has sug-

gested a potential interaction effect between mother interaction
qualities and child gender such that breastfed boys and bottle-fed
girls may exhibit the most positive interactional qualities (Kuzela
et al., 1990). Other research has also identified differences between
boys and girls in related developmental and family process re-
search (e.g., parenting practices, Sturge-Apple, Davies, Boker, &
Cummings, 2004).



Participants were the families in the National Institute of Child
Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and
Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD). These families were
recruited in 1991, shortly after their child’s birth, from hospitals at
10 sites across the United States (Little Rock, AR; Irvine, CA;
Lawrence, KS; Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA;
Charlottesville, VA; Morganton, NC; Seattle, WA; and Madison,
WI). Specific recruitment procedures are detailed more thoroughly
by the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (ECCRN,
2005). When infants were 1 month old, 1,364 mothers completed
a home interview and became part of the initial study sample. This
sample included a substantial proportion of low-education parents
(30% had no more than a high school degree) and ethnic minority
families (13% were African American compared with the national
proportion of 12%), and the mean annual income level was the
same as the U.S. average ($37,000). A total of 1,272 participants
had maternal sensitivity data at the first assessment and were
included in analyses.

Procedures and Variables

Detailed measures of family demographics, maternal behaviors,
and children’s characteristics and adjustment were obtained from
multiple informants beginning when children were 1 month of age
and continuing until they were 15 years old. Assessments were
conducted when children were 1, 3, 6, 12, 15, 24, 36, 42, 46, 50,
and 54 months old and at ages 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 14, and 15 years. The
current study focuses on data collected between 1 month and 11
years of age. The current study was based on secondary data
analysis and was therefore determined to be exempt under insti-
tutional review board protocol.

Parental sensitivity. Observations of mothers’ and fathers’
sensitivity when interacting with their children were obtained eight
times between the child’s birth and age 11. Videotapes of parent–
child interactions involving free-play scenarios and problem-
solving tasks were made at each of the study’s 10 sites and sent to
a single site for central coding, with coders blind to other infor-
mation about the families. Examples of the activities included, at
the 6 months visit, asking mothers and their babies to play freely
with a set of toys for a period of 15 min. When children were age
4.5 years, mothers and children completed a problem-solving task
by playing with an Etch-A-Sketch that had been altered by adding
a maze to the screen. Mothers and children each controlled a
separate knob on the toy and needed to work together to complete
the task. Details on the specific tasks are available in previously
published articles on this data set (see NICHD ECCRN, 1999,
2005). Rating scales were designed to capture the parent’s emo-


tional and instrumental support for the child’s engagement with the
task activities as well as collaborative interactions between parent
and child. To maintain an age-appropriate measure of the con-
struct, parental sensitivity indicators changed somewhat over time
to reflect a developmentally appropriate measure of the same
construct at each time point. For assessments at 6 and 36 months,
sensitivity scores reflected the sum of three 4-point ratings: sen-
sitivity to the child’s nondistress signals, positive regard, and
intrusiveness (reversed-scored); these scores were recoded (by
multiplying each by 7/4) to create 7-point scales that were com-
parable to observational scales obtained at later time points. The
sensitivity score at 54 months and ages 5, 8, and 11 was computed
as the sum of three 7-point ratings: supportive presence, respect for
autonomy, and hostility (reversed-scored). Individual ratings were
combined at each age to represent parental sensitivity in the interac-
tion tasks. Intercoder reliability was established by having two coders
assess approximately 20% of the tapes, randomly drawn from each
assessment period. Additional details regarding coding procedures,
training and reliabilities are available in NICHD ECCRN (1999,
2003, 2005). Observed paternal sensitivity was also measured for a
subsample of families (n � 365). All sensitivity measures were
reliable, with alphas greater than .70. We modeled maternal sensitiv-
ity out to age 11, because this was the last assessment available for

Breastfeeding duration. Length of breastfeeding was calcu-
lated from mothers’ reports on a series of questions. During the 1
month interview, mothers were asked whether the child was ever
breastfed. Mothers responding no were coded as never breastfed,
and mothers responding yes were asked how old, in weeks, their
baby was when breastfeeding ended. When children were 6
months, mothers who had indicated breastfeeding them at 1 month
were asked whether they were currently breastfeeding. Those
responding no were asked how old, in months, their baby was
when breastfeeding ended. These questions were repeated until the
mother reported that breastfeeding had ceased or through age 3.
The majority of mothers (74.4%) reported some breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding was assessed with three variables. The first two
were dichotomous indicators of whether the mother was breast-
feeding at 6 weeks and 6 months: 0 (no) and 1 (yes). The third
breastfeeding predictor variable was a continuous variable reflect-
ing the weeks mother breastfed. Percentage of mothers who breast-
fed were as follows: never (28.6%), 6 weeks (50.3%), 6 months
(26.4%), 9 months (16.6%), 12 months (9.7%), 18 months (2.7%),
and 20 months (1%). We winsorized the 2% of mothers who
reported breastfeeding longer than 24 months. This winsorizing
procedure reduced the influence of these extreme values on the
model estimates (Wilcox, 2005). The resultant breastfeeding du-
ration scores ranged from 1 week to 23.5 months and averaged
slightly less than 17 weeks. To maintain temporal ordering when
predicting maternal sensitivity at 6 and 15 months, we also in-
cluded in the primary analyses two dichotomous indicators of
whether the mother was breastfeeding at 6 weeks and at 6 months:
0 (no) and 1 (yes).

Demographic covariates. Demographic measures were ob-
tained from mothers at the 1 month interview. These included
whether a romantic partner was in the home at 1 month, mother’s
ethnicity (0 � not Hispanic, 1 � Hispanic), mother’s race (0 � not
African American, 1 � African American), and mother’s years of

Maternal covariates. When children were 1 month, mothers
completed the neuroticism subscale of the NEO Personality Inven-
tory (Costa & McCrea, 1985; Cronbach’s alpha � .835). When
children were 6 months, mothers completed the Parental Moder-
nity Scale of Child-Rearing and Educational Beliefs (Schaefer &
Edgerton, 1985). The 30 items on this sale provide an estimate of
how progressive (democratic, child-centered) versus traditional
(authoritarian, strict, adult-centered) the parent’s attitudes are to-
ward child rearing and discipline. Consistent with prior work using
this scale (Dowsett, Huston, Imes, & Gennetian, 2008), we com-
bined the items into a single index, which had composite reliabili-
ties above .80 across all time points, which assesses the extent to
which attitudes are traditional (strict, conservative, authoritarian, and
parent-centered) rather than child-centered (progressive).

Attachment security. When children were 24 months, trained
observers visited families’ homes and, after a 2-hr observation
period, completed the Attachment Behavior Q-Set (Waters &
Deane, 1985). The observer sorted the 90 items (cards) of the
Attachment Behavior Q-Set into nine piles ranging from least
characteristic to most characteristic of a particular subject. The
final sort conformed to asymmetrical, unimodal distribution with
specified numbers of items in each of the nine piles. Each item was
given a final score in terms of its placement in the distribution. A
Pearson correlation variable was then obtained by correlating the
child’s sort with a secure criterion sort. Reliability, measured as
both the Pearson correlation coefficient (r � .92) and a reliability
estimated based on repeated-measures analysis of variance (.96),
indicated a high degree of reliability for the security measure at 24


We used Mplus Version 6 (Muthén & Muthén, 2012) to estimate
each model using full-information maximum-likelihood estima-
tion. Missingness on the outcome variable of maternal sensitivity
was almost 27% at the age 11 assessment. Families that dropped
out of the study had mothers who were younger (r � .12, p �
.001), less educated (r � .13, p � .001), and more likely to be
Black (r � .06, p � .019); did not have their husband or partner
living with them (r � .08, p � .003); and reported their child as
less securely attached (r � .07, p � .021) and male (r � .07, p �
.010). We tested several nested models and selected the most
appropriate on statistical (Hu & Bentler, 1998) and conceptual
grounds. The initial model estimated change in maternal sensitivity
(both constant linear change and occasion-specific changes). To
increase similarity in length of lags between assessments, we had
phantom variables (Rindskopf, 1984) stand in for maternal sensi-
tivity at two time points when it was not measured (i.e., ages 8 and
10). This first model also included all paths that reflected our
hypotheses. First, we regressed maternal sensitivity onto mother’s
breastfeeding. Specifically, maternal sensitivity at 6 months was
regressed onto breastfeeding status at 6 weeks, change in maternal
sensitivity between 6 months and 15 months was regressed onto
breastfeeding status at 6 months, and later changes in maternal
sensitivity were regressed onto breastfeeding duration. Second, we
regressed attachment status at 24 months onto breastfeeding status
at 6 weeks and 6 months. Third, we regressed changes in maternal
sensitivity after 24 months onto attachment status. Mother’s neu-
roticism, parenting attitudes, education, race, and partner living


with the mother at 1 month were included as additional correlates
of initial status and predictors of change in maternal sensitivity.

The next models retained all variables from the initial model and
invoked invariance constraints on the regression weights of paral-
lel paths across time. For example, the regression weight of the
path from number of weeks mother breastfed child to mother’s
sensitivity when child was age 2 was constrained to be equal to the
regression weight associated with the path from weeks mother
breastfed child to mother’s sensitivity at all later ages. These
constraints did not significantly worsen model fit, ��2(7) � 4.68,
p � .46, which suggests that the hypothesized associations did not
vary across the spans of development covered by this model. The
prediction from the two indicators of mother’s breastfeeding at 6
weeks and 6 months were not included in these constraints. At-
tachment to caregiver was regressed onto breastfeeding status at 6
weeks and breastfeeding status at 6 months. These two paths to
attachment security could be equated without a loss in model fit,
��2(1) � .46, p � .76, suggesting that the increase in attachment
security between children who were breastfeeding at 6 months and
those who were at 6 weeks but stopped before 6 months was equal
in magnitude to the increase in attachment security between chil-
dren who were breastfeeding at 6 weeks versus children who were
not breastfed at 6 weeks. That is, the link from breastfeeding
duration to attachment security was additive (i.e., consistent with
a dose–response). As a final step, we set to zero all structural paths
that were not statistically significant. Based on the nonsignificant
drop in fit for each of these models, this last model was selected as
the final and most parsimonious representation of study findings,

�2(54) � 148.41, root-mean-square error of approximation �
.037, Tucker–Lewis index � .978.

Figure 1 contains the paths and coefficients associated with this
final model, with covariates omitted for the sake of clarity. Paths
without coefficients are fixed at 1. The initial level of maternal
sensitivity was 8.70 (SE � .06), and the linear change in maternal
sensitivity was an increase of .71 units (SE � .16). The correlation
between initial level and linear change in maternal sensitivity was
not significant (r � �.03, SE � .12). Occasion-specific changes in
maternal sensitivity ranged from �.04 to �.08, with a single
exception: A change in the coding of maternal sensitivity at 36
months resulted in a jump in the mean sensitivity rating (b � .76,
SE � .02). Mothers who reported breastfeeding at 6 weeks were
more sensitive during observed interactions at 6 months (b � .85,
SE � .08). Consistent with the hypothesis that breastfeeding would
predict changes in observed maternal sensitivity, the path from
breastfeeding status at 6 months to change in maternal sensitivity
at 15 months was significant, as were the paths from total weeks
mother breastfed to subsequent changes in maternal sensitivity.
Breastfeeding status at 6 weeks and 6 months predicted higher
attachment security at 24 months. Toddler attachment security did
not predict increases in maternal sensitivity net of the other vari-
ables in the model. These associations did not vary between boys
and girls.

To test whether this prediction to parenting behavior was unique
to mothers, we ran a parallel model predicting father’s sensitivity
from mother’s breastfeeding. Breastfeeding behavior did not pre-
dict changes in father’s sensitivity.




.001(.000) .001(.000) .001(.000) .001(.000)






(6 mo)




(15 mo)




(24 mo)



(36 mo)


Δy(3) Δy(4)



(age 7)














(age 9)








at 6






0.64(.02) 0.61(.02) 0.54(.02)
0.55(.02) 0.63(.02)




(54 mo)



(age 11)






at 6


Figure 1. Observed maternal sensitivity as predicted from breastfeeding duration, adjusted for demographic
covariates. Standard errors are in parentheses. All coefficients are significant at � � .05. Paths without a
coefficient are fixed to 1.



The current study represents the first longitudinal investigation
of the potential effects of breastfeeding duration on maternal
sensitivity across the following decade. We hypothesized that,
based upon prior work linking breastfeeding status with maternal
behavioral and attentional sensitivity (Kim et al., 2011; Papp,
2014; Pearson et al., 2011), breastfeeding would predict increases
over time in mothers’ parenting behaviors. This hypothesis re-
ceived support in this sample, in that breastfeeding duration pre-
dicted increases in maternal sensitivity, above and beyond family
and maternal background characteristics. Further, breastfeeding
was observed to have positive consequences for maternal sensi-
tivity beyond the infant–toddler period. Mothers who persisted in
breastfeeding for a longer duration increased their maternal sensi-
tivity over time, suggesting that breastfeeding may set in motion a
cascade of positive benefits for mothers in their parenting behav-
iors. The hypothesized positive effect of breastfeeding on maternal
sensitivity over time may represent one mechanism through which
the observed links between breastfeeding and many adult out-
comes may operate (Alati et al., 2009; Golding et al., 1997;
Hughes & Bushnell, 1977; Kramer et al., 2008; Schwarze et al.,

In light of the importance that breastfeeding has received in the
medical and nursing fields, the comparative lack of attention to
breastfeeding in the parenting literature is notable. However, one
could argue that breastfeeding is one of the first parenting deci-
sions a couple makes, and better understanding the relational and
socioemotional implications this infant feeding practice has for the
breastfeeding dyad is critical. Results from the current study sub-
stantiate and extend prior work indicating a link between breast-
feeding and maternal sensitivity (Britton et al., 2006; Edwards et
al., 2015; Kim et al., 2011; Pearson et al., 2011; Tharner et al.,
2012) by demonstrating longitudinal associations between breast-
feeding duration and subsequent increases in maternal sensitivity
over the period from 6 months to 11 years. It is important to note
that we demonstrate that this association is unique to mothers and
that fathers do not show increased sensitivity with their infants as
a result of maternal behavior.

We also demonstrate in this study a predictive link between
breastfeeding duration and attachment security in toddlerhood.
Specifically, we found that the link from breastfeeding duration to
attachment security was additive, but we did not find evidence that
attachment security subsequently predicted increases in maternal
sensitivity. Thus, there was no evidence for attachment as a me-
diator between breastfeeding duration and sensitivity in this study.
Although findings from research on breastfeeding and attachment
security have been mixed, the current results are consistent with
the idea that the close, consistent interaction provided by breast-
feeding may be one avenue through which attachment security is
strengthened in the mother–child pair. These findings are similar
to those reported by Tharner and colleagues (2012) in their sample
of mothers and babies up to 14 months of age, but we demonstrate
the link between breastfeeding and attachment security at tempo-
rally distinct time points.

In addition to demonstrating predictive associations between
breastfeeding duration and changes in maternal sensitivity, we also
demonstrate that the predicted associations remain after more
rigorous causal tests (i.e., accounting for important covariates and

predicting to change over time). Many authors have criticized the
breastfeeding literature for failing to address the possible role of
selection effects (Edwards et al., 2015; Papp, 2014). Although it is
not feasible to experimentally manipulate breastfeeding duration,
research must address concerns about selection to be compelling.
Therefore, we predicted change over time, allowing each mother to
serve as her own control (Rosnow & Rosenthal, 2008). We also
included factors highlighted in the literature as important to the
study of breastfeeding—factors including maternal education,
race–ethnicity, and whether a partner was present in the home. We
also included variables that may differentiate breastfeeding moth-
ers, such as neuroticism and parenting attitudes. The take-away
message is that breastfeeding duration continues to predict long-
term changes in maternal sensitive caregiving after accounting for
these differences between families.

The direct effects observed in this study were small, which
aligns with the theoretical position that breastfeeding behavior is
just one of many factors that influence the development of positive
mother–child bonds (Else-Quest, Hyde, & Clark, 2003). The small
effect sizes observed in this study suggest that breastfeeding du-
ration may continue to have positive benefits at different points
during later childhood. Clearly, the mother–child relationship de-
velops in complex ecologies and is multiply determined. However,
improving understanding of the role of breastfeeding in relation-
ship contexts is important, and the present findings encourage
additional consideration of breastfeeding in family process models
of child development.

We were limited in this investigation by a lack of physiological
data from mothers, a key consideration in understanding the mech-
anisms through which breastfeeding may promote maternal sensi-
tivity. Several studies have indicated that stimulation of the nipple
during breastfeeding promote oxytocin and prolactin release, hor-
mones tied to caregiving behaviors in the mother (Feldman,
Weller, Zagoory-Sharon, & Levine, 2007; Mann & Bridges, 2001;
Moberg & Prime, 2013). Additional research is needed to deter-
mine whether oxytocin and associated hormone release is a mech-
anism through which maternal sensitivity is promoted among breast-
feeding mothers.

Three other limitations in the current investigation are also
important to note. First, although the sample includes a range of
income and educational levels, mothers were not selected based
upon clinical or other risk factors (NICHD ECCRN, 2005). Studies
based on families facing higher risks than those in this sample have
found that breastfeeding protected young children from psychos-
ocial stress experienced due to parental divorce and separation
(Montgomery, Ehlin, & Sacker, 2006) and that breastfeeding du-
ration was an inverse predictor of maternal neglect over the course
of 15 years (Strathearn, Mamun, Najman, & O’Callaghan, 2009).
In light of this research, it seems even more imperative to continue
investigating the socioemotional benefits of breastfeeding for
mothers and infants.

Second, we lacked information in the current sample about
whether mothers were exclusively breastfeeding or mixed feeding
their infants. Because some research has suggested that the bene-
fits of breastfeeding might be more pronounced for exclusively
breastfeeding mothers (Edwards et al., 2015), it would seem
worthwhile in future investigations to include more fine grained
measures of the level of exclusivity in breastfeeding and the exact
mode of feeding (e.g., feeding breastmilk with a bottle, formula


feeding, mixed feeding). Ultimately, generating a more specific
understanding of how breastfeeding impacts the mother–infant
dyad will facilitate best practices for supporting breastfeeding in
early childhood and family relationship contexts.

Third, the mothers who remained in the study through the early
adolescent assessment at age 11 were different from mothers who
dropped out of the study on several variables included in this
model, including observed sensitivity. Consequently, this data
cannot be considered as missing at random, and subsequent pa-
rameter estimates may not generalize to the full SECCYD sample.


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Received November 8, 2016
Revision received July 17, 2017

Accepted July 31, 2017 �


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